A huge weekend data and document dump from the Hawaii Department of Health raises more questions than it answers about the government’s response to the January spill at Waimanalo Gulch Landfill.
The release — which included 20 different PDF documents totaling more than 1,000 pages and weighing in at nearly 150 combined megabytes — came in response to open records request from Civil Beat, other Hawaii media and even the city government.
It featured internal emails between Health Department staffers and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the City and County of Honolulu and landfill operator Waste Management. It also included water sampling reports, maps and pictures.
Some of the information had already been available to the public — whether via Civil Beat’s coverage of the landfill spill or our publication of Waste Management’s progress reports on a timeline.
Here are the most interesting revelations contained in the newly-released documents, based on Civil Beat’s first pass through:
On the night of Jan. 14 — while contaminated stormwater was being pumped from the flooded landfill to the ocean — state Environmental Management Division Chief Stuart Yamada told colleagues that Deputy Director Gary Gill wanted the Department of Health to identify an additive or techniques to reduce the amount of sediment being discharged to nearshore waters.
“Obviously, time is of the essence as more and more sediment is being discharged each day and there is another potential storm system heading this way,” Yamada told his colleagues in one email.
Clean Water Branch Chief Alec Wong told Yamada that the state could consider a polymer as a coagulant to enhance sedimentation. Presumably, the material would be added to the standing water in the detention basin or the pond atop the landfill — nicknamed “Lake Tim” by Yamada, possibly for Honolulu Environmental Services Director Tim Steinberger.
The polymer coagulant would play the opposite role of dispersants used by cleanup crews in the Gulf of Mexico after the Deepwater Horizon explosion and massive oil spill last spring. That chemical — a common brand is Corexit — was designed to break up slicks and was said to help reduce the impact of oil on the Gulf ecosystem. But it’s not without its own environmental questions, especially when applied in massive quantities.
It’s unclear what coagulant the state would have considered, and it’s also unclear if any chemicals were introduced. There appears to be no further mention of it in the released department communications.
Michael Tsuji, supervisor of the Enforcement Section of the Health Department’s Clean Water Branch, told Civil Beat Monday that the polymer is commonly used at water treatment centers, where it binds with soil particles and forces them to sink.
“I don’t recall it being used at Waimanalo Gulch,” Tsuji said.
Last week, Civil Beat reported that the stormwater discharged from the landfill contained iron in higher than legal limits.
It turns out there was more.
While the “culvert” sampling location described in the document obtained by Civil Beat for that story had legal amounts of everything, four more sampling locations tested on Jan. 13 exceeded another chemical limit: Zinc. The full list of chemical test results was included on the last of 230 pages in one document released this weekend.
Measurements taken at the “upcanyon,” “ocean outlet,” “ocean east” and “ocean west” locations exceeded the 0.022 miligram-per-liter mark. They scored 0.058, 0.037, 0.049 and 0.047, respectively. The “culvert” came in at 0.017.
But because the “upcanyon” sampling location is actually above the landfill, that indicates the zinc might have gotten into the water before it even contacted garbage.
The Clean Water Branch told Civil Beat Monday it wanted to review the results before commenting on the health impacts of high zinc levels.
At first blush, the revelation on Jan. 25 that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency “threatened” Waste Management with a unilateral order before the parties agreed to collaborate looks bad. Actually, the EPA was surprised by how accommodating Honolulu’s landfill operator was.
“We heard last night that WM is indicating they will sign the AOC, rather than the UAO we threatened,” EPA’s Arlene Kabei wrote in an email to the Health Department’s Yamada. “Amazing.”
AOCs are Administrative Orders on Consent, while UAOs are Unilateral Administrative Orders. An EPA attorney whose name appears frequently in discussions of the order in released documents told Civil Beat that “99 times out of 100” the EPA is forced to issue a UAO.
“As a matter of general principle, we prefer orders on consent. It’s a matter of good government to have parties working together rather than the government throwing its weight around,” EPA counsel Andrew Helmlinger said Monday. “The scope of work doesn’t change. If there’s response that’s necessary, we don’t negotiate that response.”
He said the order eventually entered into by the feds and the landfill operator is “protective of public health and safety and the environment” and that the EPA did not make any substantive concessions to convince Waste Management to agree to terms that included reimbursement for oversight costs and waiving the right to appeal.
“It is pretty unusual for a company to enter up to an AOC in an emergency … so if I were to characterize it, I would say it does speak well of Waste Management that we didn’t have to issue an order,” Helmlinger said.
Said Waste Management General Manager Joe Whelan in a written statement Monday: “We are pleased that we were able to work cooperatively with the EPA in negotiating a agreement in such a short time so that everyone could focus their efforts on addressing the storm water issues at the site.”
The released documents are only the beginning.
Some records were not disclosed because they involve attorney-client privilege, were prepared in anticipation of possible litigation or would frustrate legitimate government functions, Yamada said in the email announcing the release. Civil Beat has requested a log of the withheld documents and expects to receive it — and publish it — this week.
Four Health Department branches — Solid and Hazardous Waste, Clean Water, Clean Air and Indoor Radiological Health — will be making additional documents available for inspection at their offices, and Civil Beat will be there in coming days.
Review the newly-released documents for yourself: